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For Hispanics, A Question Of Turnout

Latino supporters hold up signs as they attend a campaign rally for President Obama at Sloan's Lake Park in Denver on Oct. 4.
Doug Pensinger
Getty Images
Latino supporters hold up signs as they attend a campaign rally for President Obama at Sloan's Lake Park in Denver on Oct. 4.

By now, it's no surprise that most Latinos plan to vote for President Obama. They are the nation's largest minority group, often likened to a sleeping giant that could decide the outcome in key swing states.

But will enough Latinos show up on Election Day to make good on the prediction?

As many as 60,000 Hispanics reach voting age every month, but Latinos overall have yet to bring their full force to the voting booth. Two-thirds of eligible whites and African-Americans voted in the 2008 presidential election, while barely half of Hispanics cast ballots.

This year, declined voter registration and tepid enthusiasm among Hispanics have complicated the Obama campaign's efforts to rally minorities against Republican Mitt Romney and his polling advantage with white voters.

Add the concerns about obstacles posed by new photo identification requirements, voter roll purges and demands for proof of citizenship, and it all casts doubt on whether Latino turnout will reach the goal of 12.2 million set by Hispanic advocacy groups. That would mark a 26 percent increase from 2008, when Latinos set a record of roughly 9.7 million votes cast.

On Thursday, leaders of the organizations said that after conducting registration drives in targeted battleground states, they expect turnout to hit the mark, which would be a record.

"We are very confident the number will grow to 12 million," Clarissa Martinez de Castro, of National Council of La Raza, told reporters on a conference call. "There's a lot of excitement on the ground. Just like more of the voters are paying more attention to the election, Latinos are as well, and we are very encouraged by the registration numbers."

Economics Vs. Demographics

Some polls show Obama leading Romney among Hispanics by 40 points or more, but it's been unclear whether his advantage will beget strong turnout.

Since last year, Hispanic groups and the Obama campaign separately have worked to reverse a nationwide loss of 2 million registered Latinos and African-Americans following the 2008 elections.

The declines concerned many Democratic organizers who believe they have to increase minority turnout from a record 26 percent in 2008 to offset Obama's struggles with white voters. He received 43 percent of white votes in 2008, and that support this year has dropped to as low as 36 percent.

The registration efforts targeted swing states such as Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, where Latino registrations fell by 10 percent — or more than 140,000 people.

"This is a race of economics, which benefits Romney, versus demographics, which benefit Obama if he can mobilize those groups," says Robert Preuhs, a political science professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

In some of the states that record voters' race and ethnicity, the groundwork appears to have worked. In Florida and North Carolina, for example, the numbers of registered Latinos now have outpaced 2008 levels.

The Obama campaign has released figures claiming strong increases in registered Latinos, Democrats and others in several battlegrounds, including Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.

The campaign document also said 80 percent of people who have registered since August are minorities, women or younger than 30 — all groups that form the core of Obama's support.

Immigration Differences Widen Gap

Latinos' increased engagement in the election seems directly tied to the candidates' divergent positions on immigration.

Obama boosted his Latino support with his decision in June to halt deportations of young people who have spent most of their lives in the U.S.

Despite the Romney campaign's aggressive Latino outreach and Romney's recent efforts to move toward the center, he hasn't overcome the backlash from his pledge to repeal the Dream Act and his calls for illegal immigrants to "self-deport."

Immigration tied with the economy as the top concern for Hispanics in Colorado, Virginia and Arizona, according to recent polls conducted by Latino Decisions.

Since Obama's policy announcement in June, the Colorado survey found Latinos' enthusiasm about the election had climbed nine points, to 69 percent. Their support for Obama increased four points, to 74 percent, while support for Romney slid two points, to 20 percent. In Colorado, the candidates are in a near-dead heat in polls.

Another new Latino Decisions survey, taken in Virginia, showed Obama had gained seven points and Romney had lost six points since June, at 66 percent to 22 percent, respectively. Polls show Virginia deadlocked.

"Immigration is a personal issue for many of these voters," says Michael McDonald, a political science professor at George Mason University in Virginia, who worked on Latino Decisions' survey of that state. "Without question it raised their willingness to vote for Obama. When Republican candidates can be negatively affected by immigration among Latinos is when they talk about undocumented immigrants ... or like Romney's comments about self-deportation."

Florida is the outlier, given that immigration is less of a concern to Hispanics there. Registered Latino Democrats only slightly outnumber Republicans.

Both factors help explain a new poll showing Obama leading Romney by just six points among Florida Hispanics.

Both campaigns have attacked each other over immigration, the economy and other issues in ad wars concentrated in Colorado, Florida and Nevada. The Obama team has spent nearly $9 million and the Romney camp about $4.6 million on Spanish-language television spots in those states, according to the advertising tracker Kantar Media.

"Latinos are already turning out to support President Obama in higher numbers than they did in 2008 because they know that Mitt Romney is on the wrong side of every Latino voter priority and the most extreme presidential nominee on immigration," Obama campaign spokeswoman Gabriela Domenzain says.

Asked whether Romney's stance on immigration has alienated Latinos, Bettina Inclan, who directs the Romney campaign's Hispanic outreach, declined to respond. Inclan says Hispanics' top concern is the economy, given their nearly 10 percent unemployment rate, compared with 7.8 percent for the nation.

"There's no way you can focus on anything else when you're trying to put food on the table and it's becoming harder and harder to survive," Inclan says. "It's unfortunate that their economic situation continues to get worse and worse under the policies of President Obama."

Close Races Give Latinos An Opening

The upward trends of registration and polling are fanning speculation that if Virginia, Colorado and other battleground states come to a tight finish, even small Latino populations could make a difference.

"Latinos are a sleeping giant in Virginia, and we're waking up," says state Delegate Alfonso Lopez, who last year became the first Latino Democrat elected to the Legislature.

In North Carolina, for instance, about 105,000 Latinos make up less than 2 percent of registered voters. Obama won by slightly more than 14,000 votes in 2008. Polls show Romney has edged ahead by an average of 5.6 percent.

"Out of 6.2 million voters, that's not very many," University of North Carolina professor Ferrel Guillory says of the state's Latinos. "But if the race is going to come down like it did last time, that may matter. Now, if Obama can get 60 or 70 percent of them, that's a little extra boost."

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Corey Dade is a national correspondent for the NPR Digital News team. With more than 15 years of journalism experience, he writes news analysis about federal policy, national politics, social trends, cultural issues and other topics for
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